Queen’s graduate Emma Shaw was awarded the George Moore Scholarship in 2020 to study an MA in Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. Here, she talks about overcoming health problems and insecurity to follow her dream.
“I completed my undergraduate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at Queen’s and graduated ‘virtually’ in July 2020 with a 2:1, and was also awarded the Best Improved Performance Award between levels 2 and 3,” says Emma, whose path to success was not easy.
“I returned to education as a mature student and a single mum with two children.”
Among her biggest challenges was just getting through the first year – a time when both she and her daughter experienced health problems. “First year was definitely one of the most challenging, both myself and my daughter had health issues, but I persevered and made use of the services offered at the University.”
Despite her ability, Emma admits she was plagued with self-doubt. “I had this feeling that I didn’t belong and that maybe I wasn’t good enough, I continuously doubted myself.”
Finding my confidence
By second year, Emma had made a conscious decision to engage more with campus life.
“In my second year at Queen’s I made the decision to run for HAPP School Representative and became more active on campus. I would go on to also be the AHSS Faculty Rep and Part-time Mature Student Officer,” she says.
If you are struggling with life at university, Emma has this advice
“University can be a lonely place and it’s easy to get caught up in the pressure of it all. Some of the best advice that I could give to other students would be to find your tribe, whether it’s a small group of study buddies keeping you on track or becoming active in a club or society or even both, it’s important that you engage with your peers both for moral and mental support.”
Before being awarded the prestigious George Moore Scholarship, Emma began to pursue her passion for inclusive education. “In my final year, I conducted independent research seeking to understand the viewpoints of young people ages 11-16 on higher and further education. My focus was on schools based in my community of East Belfast and what the barriers were that young people faced when thinking about their next steps in education.”
Currently completing her MA at the University of Texas, Emma’s home community is at the forefront of her mind. “When I return to Belfast, my aim is to found a non-profit community based organisation that will tackle some of the barriers faced by the community in terms of educational underachievement.”
We’re confident Emma will succeed in whatever she chooses to do next.
To find out more about the George Moore Scholarship, don’t miss our information session on 4 November at 1.30pm.
Phoebe Craddock-Bligh, Queen’s History and Politics student spent a year at William Peace University Raleigh, NC, as part of the Study USA programme. Here is how she got on:
I applied to take part in the Study USA programme after hearing about it at the Go Global Fair two years ago. I also attended other talks but decided that Study USA was the one for me. In a very boring and practical way Study USA was the most economical way for me to take a year out and to be honest that was my driving factor in applying (that and REALLY wanting to go to America). – Getting accepted was just the biggest rush and it just goes to show you, if you don’t apply you won’t ever know- so why not take the risk?
Learning a new subject
I was placed by Study USA in William Peace University in Raleigh, NC with the primary goal of studying business classes and gaining an understanding of American culture. As a History and Politics student I was initially nervous about taking business classes, especially as I hadn’t taken a maths class since 2016! There were moments where I did struggle (especially in micro and macroeconomics) but I quickly realised that it wasn’t just me who was finding the content hard- the whole class was, which was quite the relief.
Through some hard work, a bit of mentoring and wonderful and caring teaching staff, I ended the semester with a distinction from the Dean and a 4.0 GPA! I was also pleasantly surprised at how interesting I found the business classes, plus I was able to take 1 elective per semester, so alongside organisational behaviour and marketing, I tried out completely new classes such as creative writing and women’s studies. In short – don’t rule out applying for Study USA just because you’re not a business student. The business skills I gained made me feel stronger in my position going forward into my career, and I’m grateful I had the chance to learn more about business in such a unique way.
A taste of the USA
Now for the fun stuff: living in the States was amazing! I loved every second, even when I wasn’t loving it. When I was presented with the reality of returning home pre-lockdown, I was distraught to be leaving so soon and not getting to finish the year on a high. Of course, I’m still incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity and the experiences I did. I got to visit NYC, explore Washington DC, take a Spring Break road trip to the mountains, and even a 9-hour drive to Florida (and back- we should have flown). And, of course, explore plenty of North Carolina. One of my favourite parts of being in The South was the BBQ! I can’t even write this without thinking about North Carolinian chopped BBQ, coleslaw and vinegar based hot sauce – and then there was the Mexican food! Sorry Boojum, but I’ve seen the light.
Joining the frat pack
Ultimately though, my favourite memories of my time in the States are less to do with all the cool places I got to see, and more to do with my friends and experiencing American college life. I thought I was prepared for the ‘American college experience’, I’d seen the films I thought I knew the craic. One thing I was not ready for was the sheer level of enthusiasm I was met with. From day one I became a Pacer, embroiled in college tradition and part of tight knit, caring community. I loved all the free merch we got to show off our ‘Pacer pride’, the welcome dinners on the front lawn and the events put on for students. Weekdays were always so busy with sports games (I’m now an avid basketball fan), ice cream socials or movie screenings, not to mention several failed Zumba classes. It was great being so involved.
My friends made my year though. I met some of the most fantastic people (and of course some not so great ones – but that’s just life!). I got particularly lucky with my suitemate Shawntez though. We met in the bathroom, where so many great female friendships begin, and were pretty much inseparable after that. What I miss the most from my time on Study USA is the people. It’s cringey but it’s true. It was my friends who made 8am classes bearable, or broke up the tedium of cafeteria food with weeknight trips to Wendy’s for burgers. My favourite memory with Shawntez was the NC State Fair. We accidentally parked 2 miles away, refused to wait for the shuttle bus so walked down a highway in the rain only to queue for 40 minutes just to get inside. But you know what, we still had the best time. Our night ended at 1am with a giant turkey leg, chocolate dipped cheesecake, and an entire deep fried onion. An initial disaster turned into the best memory.
Your main reason for studying abroad might not be to meet amazing friends you will inevitably have to leave, but it’s these people who end up making the day to day life, classes, homework and missing home enjoyable.
Sometimes I scroll though my camera roll looking at my photos from last year, and it still doesn’t always feel real. The experiences I had genuinely changed how I look at and approach the world in the best possible way, and my resilience has increased 10 times over. It wasn’t all plain sailing. Naturally there were times when I longed to go home and see my family, but I would do the whole thing all over again in a heartbeat if I could, the bad and the good.
If you’re even the tiniest bit considering that you might like to spend some time studying abroad, I would encourage you to take the plunge and apply. Start the process and you never know how far you might get.
Find out more about Study USA by joining our information session on Oct 21
Queen’s Philosophy student Ryan Lavelle spent a year in North Central College, Illinois as part of the Study USA programme. Here is his diary.
I had always dreamed of one day moving to America, and on 12 August 2019, I finally stepped on a plane bound for Chicago to make that dream a reality. I remember standing wide-eyed in Dublin Airport with a bag-load of dreams, nerves and expectations.
I worked so hard for this moment: in the months leading up to my move to America, I worked three jobs so that I could save enough money to enjoy my time in Chicago. Unfortunately, I also suffered a close family bereavement shortly before my date of departure, but there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be able to go ahead with my great American adventure and have the best time possible. My goals? To propel myself further in life by meeting new people and making new connections, seeing new places and learning new things. I did all of this and more, and though the year came to an abrupt end, there has been a remarkable difference in my levels of confidence, resilience and knowledge as a result.
Touching down in Chicago
When I arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, it was hot and humid, and very rainy outside. For some reason I expected to walk out of the gate and see someone with my name on a sign waiting for me. That wasn’t the case. I instantly felt the fast-paced American culture all around me, with lots of people shouting and rushing around. I was no longer in Dublin. I did not panic though. In fact, I kind of liked it. Luckily, I happened to see this bushy blonde-haired woman with a sign that read ‘North Central College’ walking around, so I approached her and said “I think you’re looking for me.” Little did I know I wasn’t the only person she was looking for as she had about seven other students due to arrive any minute.
The first night
This woman was Kimberley Larsson, Executive Director of the Center for Global Education at my college for the year, North Central College. One-by-one, the other students were found. French. German. Spanish. Bosnian. Australian. Russian. Japanese. Right away I was in the thick of cultural diversity, and I loved it. We then crammed into the red North Central shuttle bus and headed to Naperville, about 40 minutes from O’Hare. I was in awe of the massive highways, billboards and buildings that surrounded us. I really was in America! Because we arrived late, we pretty much went to our rooms after being given bedding and pillows by staff. I thought about how previous exchange year students spoke of an immediate feeling of dread when that bedroom door shuts for the first time. I couldn’t have been further away from feeling dread – I was thriving. In terms of culture shock, nothing ‘shocked’ me per se, but I loved the challenge of adapting to a new environment as I had never taken up such a drastic transition in all my life until then. With that said, I was at ease. Thankfully, this feeling persisted all throughout my experience and homesickness never really became a thing for me.
Making friends from all over the world
From the next day onward, all international students partook in orientation week. The international students all became very close in the first semester. I made some of my best friends within the group of international students, and I plan on visiting them one day. What’s nice about getting close to other internationals is that they are in the same boat as you. They’re far away from home and adapting to a new environment, just like you. The sad part about getting close to other internationals is that so many of them are only there for one semester. Going back after Christmas break was somewhat daunting as I knew some of the people I spent a lot of time with would no longer be there, but this just meant I got much closer to the American students I was already friends with. The cultural diversity at play was, at times, astonishing. It was great to experience people from so many different backgrounds. Whilst enjoyable, it was also challenging. At times certain people would get frustrated with one another because they were misunderstood for saying or doing something that would be so normal in their home countries. I was once explaining Brexit to a fellow classmate when he interrupted me and asked the following: “wait, what’s Brexit? Is that a country?” You just have to laugh in those moments!
Chasing the American dream
America is a highly diverse country, but it’s also competitive. This is what makes it such an exciting place to be. People are always going somewhere or doing something. They always have a goal in mind, a meeting to be at, or money to earn – even if they’re the most zen person you could ever meet. It’s hard not to get caught up in this lifestyle. I developed better practices in the States because of this, such as keeping a good routine, waking up early, studying more regularly, drinking less and exploring the world around me more. Thus, I think the cultural diversity has been good to me. I’ve taken things from each culture I’ve befriended and used these lessons in my own daily life whilst remembering how alike we all can be in some sense, too.
Living in a college movie
Within a week of orientation, I was right into classes. It felt surreal being in an American classroom given that my childhood was consumed by American television shows centred on the American high school and college student experience. For the fall semester I took classes in marketing, international business, environmental economics and an elective called ‘people and nature’ which was a socio-political look at humanity’s relationship with the environment. In the spring, my classes were social entrepreneurship, an introduction to computer programming, business law and another environmental studies elective.
Finding my niche
North Central College has an amazing focus on sustainability which drew me to the college in the first place, and I knew I wanted to take as many environmental classes as I could. This aspect of my college life has been one of the highlights of my year abroad. I am interested in the dynamic between business and the environment, and my year abroad allowed me to focus my studies on just that. Now I feel better informed and prepared to complete my dissertation in final year, which I hope to do on environmental ethics. The environmental field is growing and the jobs market for candidates with this kind of knowledge and experience is only going to get bigger in the future. I have since decided I wish to steer my career journey in this direction and hope to pursue postgraduate courses and jobs in environmental law, policy or management.
A new life outlook
Moreover, the social entrepreneurship class I took has also changed my outlook on life. It involved me coming up with a fully-fledged social venture plan to address a social issue I am passionate about. The result of my work was a business plan for a social enterprise that addresses the link between our environment and mental health in the context of climate anxiety. This is something I would love to one day work on again, perhaps even at Queen’s! Thus, my classes have meant a lot to me and in the grand scheme of things. I was gifted with a renewed entrepreneurial spirit during my time studying in the US, which in itself comes with an eagerness to take every opportunity that presents itself to you.
Flexible study model
I very much welcomed the differences between the US and UK education systems and appreciate both in their own ways. I recognise what makes the system I am used to at Queen’s so great, but preferred certain elements of the system at North Central College. In regards to the latter, I especially liked the flexibility of choosing classes and electives, and found it interesting how American students do not apply to colleges per course they want to do, as they can declare their ‘major’ well into their studies. I think I would definitely benefit from this back home as I enjoy so many fields of study and found it hard settling on just one. That being said, courses at home are more rigorous. The flexibility in the American system gives room for lenient teaching and grading, more varied and school-like assessments and having classmates that find they don’t really want to be there (if they’ve taken your class just for credit). That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything – I actually learned a lot, and regular homework was common in the US! University in the UK, however, holds you to a higher standard in terms of independence and responsibility, especially when it comes to researching and essay writing.
It seems American students have a much heavier focus on extracurriculars in conjunction with their studies, with many of them receiving scholarships for sport, music or acting which then take precedence over their social and academic lives. Having said this, I myself got into the routine of taking part in extracurriculars such as Enactus which was a nice contrast to my social life in Belfast which mainly consisted of either working or going out. In a way, I think studying in the US has helped me develop a more balanced mindset when it comes to student life – it’s not all about partying hard and spending obscene amounts of money every week. Since coming home, I already feel much more positive, healthy and fiscally responsible than I was before.
Highlights I’ll cherish
I will be ever grateful for my year abroad. I look back on my time at North Central College fondly and I tend to think about specific moments or people I met along the way every day. I think my favourite moment was attending the Global Climate Strike in downtown Chicago with some of my best friends in September 2019. That moment exuded everything I learned throughout the year – friendship, reflection, Chicago, passion, activism, confidence, strength and resilience. I have an almighty appetite to return to the States one day (maybe next year?), but for now I am quite content in Belfast.
I have realised that all of these places I had been so used to are now new to me again as I step back in old environments with a new persona, a new being and a new sense of direction in life. That’s all thanks to my global opportunity and the additional opportunities it created along the way. It goes without saying that the 2019-20 ‘year abroaders’ won’t be forgotten about any time soon. Being abroad during the unravelling of a global pandemic is a life lesson in and of itself. However, it does not take away from the fun and enjoyment I had in the last few weeks before my departure, but also the whole year. I can confidently say that I left Chicago having made some small difference in people’s lives, but the difference in my life is much greater and more profound. So, if you’re reading this and considering giving a year abroad a go – there’s no harm in at least applying! Attend workshops, work on your application, go to the interview… And if you’re lucky enough to get the chance to go abroad – take it!
If anything this year has shown us, it’s that life is full of risks. I can confidently say that studying abroad was the best risk I’ve ever taken (even when my personal life was a bit chaotic). That said, I’d do it all over again.
Fancy studying in the USA like Ryan? Don’t miss our Study USA information session. 21 October 12pm. Register here: